The sociologist Bruno Latour once wrote that ‘no human is as relentlessly moral as a machine’. By this I think he meant that no human has the sort of immediate, automatic, and unflinching certainty that machines manifest. You know where you are with machines and tools: they do what they say they’re going to do; they open cans, bang in nails, vacuum clean your house. If they let you down – and they do – it is because of some systemic failure; they don’t let you down by being insincere, by going behind your back, by lying about you or by handing you over to the State Police on the strength of a bribe. When they let you down it isn’t an issue of morality.
Basil Fawlty (from the 1970s comedy drama Fawlty Towers) functions, for the most part, at a pitch of seething fury. The narrative arc of each show moves from a state of potential joy (Basil hopes to make some money on the horses; he has a new upmarket menu; and so on) to seeing his hopes dashed on the rocks of his own overreaching social ambition, snobbery and ill-humor. In perhaps the most famous scene from the show he canes his car (that he has failed to get fixed) for being willfully disobedient, for conspiring to ruin his plans. It is a scene of anthropomorphism aimed at the inorganic (“right, you’ve asked for it” he screams when the car yet again won’t start), and it claims intentionality and consciousness for the supremely indifferent car.
Basil Fawlty behaves irrationally: who could possibly believe that the car had it in for him? Much better, no doubt, to think that the inorganic world of tools and circuits will work just as long as they are able to, and that when a piston fails, when rubber perishes, when a connection disconnects, that this is due to the laws of entropy rather than a malevolence that has found its way into the world of things. Yet when the handlebars of a bicycle snap in two when you are hurtling downhill, or when a chair disintegrates after you’ve been sitting on it for twenty minutes, or when your computer simply won’t follow commands it has been following for several years, who can remain rational?
Two weeks ago I bought a small kitchen knife. It is fiercely sharp. I think it could split molecules if not atoms. The first time I used it I was cutting up some lettuce (totally the wrong knife for the job) and sliced through the side of my thumb. I knew that the knife hadn’t meant to wound me: it wasn’t a vindictive knife or an angry knife, or a psychotic knife. I only had myself to blame. Yet I can’t bear to look at that knife now. I can’t forgive it and I have tucked it away at the very back of the knife drawer where it will languish unused forever. So there.